For people who are still asking the question: “Why Pittsburgh?” I would remind them of a very famous place that many jazz aficionados know played a major role during Pittsburgh’s heyday as a jazz capital in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I may have mentioned the Crawford Grill before because the owner was Gus Greenlee, the famous numbers kingpin who also owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
The Crawford Grill was the place people came to hear the real jazz music after the downtown clubs, which stayed segregated for years, had closed for the evening. Maybe in the transport, away from Pittsburgh’s business center, people could see a different world. The Crawford Grill was located in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. According to Nathan Thompson in Kings, this was the place where you could find Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Mary Lou Williams, Earl “Fatha” Hines and many others. The late night was the time when everyone black and white, would show up at The Crawford Grill. The musicians would all jam together and the patrons would all listen together. Quite a different scenario than the segregation that regularly happened just hours before in the “high-tone” white jazz clubs in downtown Pittsburgh.
The Hill District is the uptown area, just above the downtown area. Many don’t know that there were actually three Crawford Grills. This first club was where many of the heavy hitters played. It was located on land that was later occupied by The Civic Arena, the place where the circus would come to town in my childhood years. Of course, now The Civic Arena is gone and there’s just massive blank space where history once existed. The first Crawford Grill was destroyed by fire in 1951. Gus Greenlee died a few months after the fire.
The second location still stands in The Hill District, but it’s all boarded up. It was open until 2001. There’s still a phantom website inviting you to come to lunch there. There have been on and off discussions about opening it back up as a center of black history and culture, but since the August Wilson Center has been struggling, I don’t think that’s going to happen. The third location of The Crawford Grill was in Manchester, across the Allegheny River, but it isn’t there anymore either. I guess Gus Greenlee tried to take the concept as a chain, but in true Pittsburgh style, what works in one neighborhood, might not work so well in another neighborhood.
My discussion about The Crawford Grill as a center of jazz culture and appreciation seems to have a resonating theme that is not so happy. These places of history are like phantoms, gone without appreciation or acknowledgement. Thankfully, the second location of the Crawford Grill has a Pennsylvania Historical Marker. Still, whenever I go back home, I just see a big old parking lot where a lot of history was demolished to make way for an eyesore auditorium that is now gone. When are we going to learn to recognize and appreciate our historical places?